In nineteen years of reviewing restaurants, it had never happened. But two weeks ago, I lost my appetite. Worse yet, it suddenly felt frivolous -- make that absurd -- to bitch about a lack of sorrel in the soup. But the mayor commanded us to go out, frequent restaurants, resume our lives, spend money, and only a fool argues with a hero, so out we went, in search of a good meal.
It wasn't easy. Calls to cafés went unanswered or straight to voice mail. Those who did pick up were disappointed it wasn't the voice of a purveyor -- they were running out of food. And our earnest waiter at the valiantly coping restaurant Above in the Times Square Hilton ran out of English. But then, he was normally the busboy.
Everyone around town constantly apologized for not being at their best. On a purely professional level, perhaps. But as if I needed any more proof that now was not time to keep score, I opened the door to Arezzo, and remained holding it for tray upon tray of pasta being loaded for shipment to Chelsea Piers. It's a mark of the unassuming nature of this new restaurant that no one made further mention of the good deed. Instead, the owners were more eager to direct my attention to the acoustical ceiling and upholstered chairs they had just installed. Because the chef, Margherita Aloi, is one of the original trio of mamas from Le Madri, Arezzo opened with a boisterous following. On our first visit, right after the restaurant debuted, we felt like we'd been given the best table on the Roosevelt Island Tram.
But the folks at Arezzo have been quick to make changes. Not only is the sound level and seating more comfortable but the menu keeps edging toward a clean simplicity. An almost bare-bones salad of romaine lettuce has a tongue-clacking blast of fresh anchovy dressing. Lobster-and-king-crab salad employs a rustic whole-grain mustard dressing to bind the seafood to the raw flavors of celery, radish, and peppers. Golden focaccina, pocketing a velvety paste of robiola cheese, spinach, and truffle essence, is a luscious beginning to an evening. Both the carpaccio and the tomato, mozzarella, and pesto salad are fine, but they suffer from the timidity that infuses the pallid lunch menu. It's much more fun to attack the pastas -- spaghettini with mussels, shrimp, and clams in a briny red-pepper-flecked tomato base, handmade cavatelli topped with a sweet- and hot-sausage ragù, plus a favorite for anyone harboring guiltily pleasurable memories of Chef Boyardee: a meat ravioli with bolognese sauce.
These three steaming bowls -- along with the grilled rib-eye steak, and a tender Australian lamb swathed in goat cheese with mashed potatoes -- are the kind of culinary comfort you need at a time like this. Eating them, you feel as if someone you trust has placed his hands on your shoulders and whispered, "Relax." And who gives a crap if it ain't lean, or cuisine? Because you're smiling.
Uptown, where the air stayed cleaner (though the people are equally unnerved), Pino Luongo has stopped going pazzo long enough to open a sensible, original, and often highly satisfying restaurant. On an incredibly dull stretch of upper Madison, Centolire is attempting the almost unthinkable: serving big-assed, full-throttle Tuscan dishes to a neighborhood that generally gravitates toward Italian cuisine lite. The sight of glazed russet crocks bearing chunky chicken scarpariello, steamy bowls of cioppino, and baked calamari gives an unexpected pleasure. Luongo and chef Marta Pulini are hedging their bets, though -- many of their dishes would skyrocket with just that extra smack of peppercorns, capers, or garlic. If the whole menu had the boldness of the oven-dried cherry tomatoes in the spaghetti with spicy lobster, Centolire might wake this street up.
But there are quite a few energy boosters: rich, dense artichokes, roasted Roman-style; the fragrant, herb-scented, baked orata; an appealingly sweet tomato-based seafood stew. Grilled lamb chops marinated in a brash lemon zest are excellent. But the dish guaranteed to give you strength and your money's worth is Centolire's dazzlingly good dry-aged rib-eye steak.
Any restaurant feisty enough to pull off a dessert of caramelized eggplant swirled around chocolate belongs in this town, even if it's located on Snooze Avenue. So go there and take the neighbors. And wake up your spirit. You owe it to them, and to us.
Arezzo, 46 West 22nd Street (212-206-0555). Lunch, Mon.-Fri. 12-3 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Wed. 5:30-11 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. to midnight. Appetizers, $10.50-$14; entrées, $24-$34. All major credit cards.
Centolire, 1167 Madison Avenue (212-734-7711). Lunch, Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 12-4 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Sat. 6-11 p.m., Sunday to 10 p.m. Appetizers, $8-$12.50; entrées, $24-$36. V, MC, AE.